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A poem by Charles G. D. Roberts


Title:     Actaeon
Author: Charles G. D. Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]


I have lived long, and watched out many days,
And seen the showers fall and the light shine down
Equally on the vile and righteous head.
I have lived long, and served the gods, and drawn
Small joy and liberal sorrow,--scorned the gods,
And drawn no less my little meed of good,
Suffered my ill in no more grievous measure.
I have been glad--alas, my foolish people,
I have been glad with you! And ye are glad,
Seeing the gods in all things, praising them
In yon their lucid heaven, this green world,
The moving inexorable sea, and wide
Delight of noonday,--till in ignorance
Ye err, your feet transgress, and the bolt falls!
Ay, have I sung, and dreamed that they would hear;
And worshipped, and made offerings;--it may be
They heard, and did perceive, and were well pleased,--
A little music in their ears; perchance,
A grain more savor to their nostrils, sweet
Tho' scarce accounted of. But when for me
The mists of Acheron have striven up,
And horror was shed round me; when my knees
Relaxed, my tongue clave speechless, they forgot.
And when my sharp cry cut the moveless night,
And days and nights my wailings clamored up
And beat about their golden homes, perchance
They shut their ears. No happy music this,
Eddying through their nectar cups and calm!
Then I cried out against them, and died not;
And rose, and set me to my daily tasks.
So all day long, with bare, uplift right arm,
Drew out the strong thread from the carded wool,
Or wrought strange figures, lotus-buds and serpents,
In Purple on the himation's saffron fold;
Nor uttered praise with the slim-wristed girls
To any god, nor uttered any prayer,
Nor poured out bowls of wine and smooth bright oil,
Nor brake and gave small cakes of beaten meal
And honey, as this time, or such a god
Required; nor offered apples summer-flushed,
Scarlet pomegranates, poppy-bells, or doves.
All this with scorn, and waiting all day long,
And night long with dim fear, afraid of sleep,--
Seeing I took no hurt of all these things,
And seeing mine eyes were drièd of their tears
So that once more the light grew sweet for me,
Once more grew fair the fields and valley streams,
I thought with how small profit men take heed
To worship with bowed heads, and suppliant hands,
And sacrifice, the everlasting gods,
Who take small thought of them to curse or bless,
Girt with their purples of perpetual peace!
Thus blindly deemed I of them;--yet--and yet--
Have late well learned their hate is swift as fire,
Be one so wretched to encounter it;
Ay, have I seen a multitude of good deeds
Fly up in the pan like husks, like husks blown dry.
Hereafter let none question the high gods!
I questioned; but these watching eyes have seen
Actaeon, thewed and sinewed like a god,
Godlike for sweet speech and great deeds, hurled down
To hideous death,--scarce suffered space to breathe
Ere the wild heart in his changed quivering side
Burst with mad terror, and the stag's wide eyes
Stared one sick moment 'mid the dogs' hot jaws.

* * * * *

Cithaeron, mother mount, set steadfastly
Deep in Boeotia, past the utmost roar
Of seas, beyond Corinthian waves withdrawn,
Girt with green vales awake with brooks or still,
Towers up mid lesser-browed Boeotian hills--
These couched like herds secure beneath its ken--
And watches earth's green corners. At mid-noon
We of Plataea mark the sun make pause
Right over it, and top its crest with pride.
Men of Eleusis look toward north at dawn
To see the long white fleeces upward roll,
Smitten aslant with saffron, fade like smoke,
And leave the gray-green dripping glens all bare,
The drenched slopes open sunward; slopes wherein
What gods, what godlike men to match with gods,
Have roamed, and grown up mighty, and waxed wise
Under the law of him whom gods and men
Reverence, and call Cheiron! He, made wise
With knowledge of all wisdom, had made wise
Actaeon, till there moved none cunninger
To drive with might the javelin forth, or bend
The corded ebony, save Leto's son.

But him the Centaur shall behold no more
With long stride making down the beechy glade,
Clear-eyed, with firm lips laughing,--at his heels
The clamor of his fifty deep-tongued hounds;
Him the wise Centaur shall behold no more.

I have lived long, and watched out many days,
And am well sick of watching. Three days since,
I had gone out upon the slopes for herbs,
Snake-root, and subtle gums; and when the light
Fell slantwise through the upper glens, and missed
The sunk ravines, I came where all the hills
Circle the valley of Gargaphian streams.
Reach beyond reach all down the valley gleamed,--
Thick branches ringed them. Scarce a bowshot past
My platan, thro' the woven leaves low-hung,
Trembling in meshes of the woven sun,
A yellow-sanded pool, shallow and clear,
Lay sparkling, brown about the further bank
From scarlet-berried ash-trees hanging over.
But suddenly the shallows brake awake
With laughter and light voices, and I saw
Where Artemis, white goddess incorrupt,
Bane of swift beasts, and deadly for straight shaft
Unswerving, from a coppice not far off
Came to the pool from the hither bank to bathe.
Amid her maiden company she moved,
Their cross-thonged yellow buskins scattered off,
Unloosed their knotted hair; and thus the pool
Received them stepping, shrinking, down to it.

Here they flocked white, and splashed the water-drops
On rounded breast and shoulder snowier
Than the washed clouds athwart the morning's blue,--
Fresher than river grasses which the herds
Pluck from the river in the burning noons.
Their tresses on the summer wind they flung;
And some a shining yellow fleece let fall
For the sun's envy; others with white hands
Lifted a glooming wealth of locks more dark
Than deepest wells, but purple in the sun.
And She, their mistress, of the heart unstormed,
Stood taller than they all, supreme, and still,
Perfectly fair like day, and crowned with hair
The color of nipt beech-leaves: Ay, such hair
Was mine in years when I was such as these.
I let it fall to cover me, or coiled
Its soft thick coils about my throat and arms;
Its color like nipt beech-leaves, tawny brown,
But in the sun a fountain of live gold.

Even as thus they played, and some lithe maids
Upreached white arms to grasp the berried ash,
And, plucking the bright bunches, shed them wide
By red ripe handfuls, not far off I saw
With long stride making down the beechy glade,
Clear-eyed, with firm lips laughing, at his heels
The clamor of his fifty deep-tongued hounds,
Actaeon. I beheld him not far off,
But unto bath and bathers hid from view,
Being beyond that mighty rock whereon
His wont was to be stretched at dip of eve,
When frogs are loud amid the tall-plumed sedge
In marshy spots about Asopus' bank,--
Deeming his life was very sweet, his day
A pleasant one, the peopled breadths of earth
Most fair, and fair the shining tracts of sea;
Green solitudes, and broad low-lying plains
Made brown with frequent labors of men's hands,
And salt, blue, fruitless waters. But this mount,
Cithaeron, bosomed deep in soundless hills,
Its fountained vales, its nights of starry calm,
Its high chill dawns, its long-drawn golden days,--
Was dearest to him. Here he dreamed high dreams,
And felt within his sinews strength to strive
Where strife was sorest and to overcome,
And in his heart the thought to do great deeds,
With power in all ways to accomplish them.
For had not he done well to men, and done
Well to the gods? Therefore he stood secure.

But him,--for him--Ah that these eyes should see!--
Approached a sudden stumbling in his ways!
Not yet, not yet he knew a god's fierce wrath,
Nor wist of that swift vengeance lying in wait.

And now he came upon a slope of sward
Against the pool. With startled cry the maids
Shrank clamoring round their mistress, or made flight
To covert in the hazel thickets. She
Stirred not; but pitiless anger paled her eyes,
Intent with deadly purpose. He, amazed,
Stood with his head thrust forward, while his curls
Sun-lit lay glorious on his mighty neck,--
Let fall his bow and clanging spear, and gazed
Dilate with ecstasy; nor marked the dogs
Hush their deep tongues, draw close, and ring him round,
And fix upon him strange, red, hungry eyes,
And crouch to spring. This for a moment. Then
It seemed his strong knees faltered, and he sank.
Then I cried out,--for straight a shuddering stag
Sprang one wild leap over the dogs; but they
Fastened upon his flanks with a long yell,
And reached his throat; and that proud head went down
Beneath their wet, red fangs and reeking jaws.

I have lived long, and watched out many days,
Yet have not seen that ought is sweet save life,
Nor learned that life hath other end than death.
Thick horror like a cloud had veiled my sight,
That for a space I saw not, and my ears
Were shut from hearing; but when sense grew clear
Once more, I only saw the vacant pool
Unrippled,--only saw the dreadful sward.
Where dogs lay gorged, or moved in fretful search,
Questing uneasily; and some far up
The slope, and some at the low water's edge,
With snouts set high in air and straining throats
Uttered keen howls that smote the echoing hills.
They missed their master's form, nor understood
Where was the voice they loved, the hand that reared;--
And some lay watching by the spear and bow
Flung down.

And now upon the homeless pack
And paling stream arose a noiseless wind
Out of the yellow west awhile, and stirred
The branches down the valley; then blew off
To eastward toward the long gray straits, and died
Into the dark, beyond the utmost verge.

[The end]
Charles G. D. Roberts's poem: Actaeon